There’s been a lot of discussion in Charlotte about how to create more affordable housing. But a lot of solutions take time. The question is where do people go in the meantime when their need is immediate?
The Harvest Center of Charlotte is one option. It provides emergency housing for the short-term, and assistance to help residents find ways to live on their own long-term. Center officials also plan to expand their support by building affordable housing units.
Those plans are being developed at The Harvest Center’s new expanded headquarters. It sits on seven acres just off of Billy Graham Parkway in west Charlotte and consists of a large office building, a church, playground, park, gym and apartments.
“For years we were thinking about how do we grow the opportunity we have to impact homeless families, families in transition and individuals,” said Harvest Center executive director Colin Pinkney.
That opportunity came last January. Another group that owned transitional housing, closed and gave the center all of its west Charlotte property.
“For the purpose to helping formerly homeless families transition to more affordable, permanent housing,” Pinkney said.
Behind the center’s office and church, there are nine brick apartment buildings, stretched far apart along grassy hillsides. Each one houses four, two-bedroom apartments.
“These quads were built during WWII. They were old military barracks and have been retrofitted a few times. Right inside those bricks are the original wood frames and studs,” Pinkney said.
Pinkney says 14 of the apartments are occupied with families and individuals who were living with relatives, in shelters or had lost their housing because they couldn’t afford it or a relationship ended. Six other units are being renovated.
Inside each building, there are two apartments on the first floor and two upstairs. It’s quiet this morning because the tenants are at work. Pinkney says at least one person in each household has to have a full-time job. Many of their jobs are low-paying in the service and fast-food industries, which makes it hard for them to find affordable housing. Some have good jobs but may be going through a divorce or other situation that has left them raising several children on one income, like the mother of three who lives in this unit.
“She’s a registered nurse and her credit took a hit as a result of the marriage ending and she needed an affordable place,” Pinkney said.
Pinkney says each building’s renovation cost about $90,000, which they were able to fund through a $1 million grant from an anonymous donor, and $200,000 from Elevation Church.
All of the renovated apartments are fully furnished with new appliances, televisions, artwork and wood furnishings, donated by a Harvest Center partner. When residents move in, the refrigerators and cabinets are filled with food and other supplies intended to last a month.
“We know a lot of families have a hard time working their way out of poverty because the cost of these is hard for them to control. If they try to rent this furniture, which a lot do, they end up paying three times as much for furniture and it’s of lesser quality,” Pinkney said.
The center has a philosophy of giving people a hand-up, not a hand-out. Rent is $200 a month. Tenants can stay here for 18 months. To help them get on their feet and stay there once they leave, tenants have to go through financial management and home ownership classes and set up savings accounts. Pinkney says they are getting ready to start a health clinic that will be staffed with a nurse, psychiatrist and dentist.
Harvest Center also has its own counselors, social workers and other specialists like Danielle Brown. Part of her job involves trying to get landlords to lower rents for center tenants who are ready to leave, especially those who may have a criminal or poor rental record.
“Some (landlords) work with us and some don’t,” Brown said. “But sometimes I get tenants in there and they may relapse and say something like I know my rent is $500 but I may pay something else. The landlord only has my word so I try to send the people with these landlords that I know will be able to stay there and won’t mess up the relationship.”
Brown encourages tenants like this to do things to increase their income, such as getting a GED, additional training, and asking for promotions and raises, so they can get better-paying jobs and permanent housing. She says some may have health or other issues that are holding them back, so the center provides or finds services for whatever their tenants need to heal and succeed.
“I believe our overall program is encouraging and motivating because we’re not only helping with the housing. We look at all things people go through—the social, physical, emotional, occupational, financial—so it’s not just housing but getting to know our families and what their needs are, what are their priorities in life. We just don’t look at them as a homeless person but look at them overall,” Brown said.
According to Pinkney, 80 percent of their tenants remain fully employed and in permanent housing that they can afford once they leave. They even have a new homeowner this year.
Thirty-one-year-old Qunita Dashiell moved here two years ago with her two children after she split with her husband. That was before Harvest Center took over and they allowed her to stay until she was financially stable.
“Through the financial classes, I learned how to save money and look at my credit to see what I owed,” Dashiell said. “When I got my taxes back I paid off my debts.”
Dashiell was working as a church chef. After expenses, she was left with $600 a month. But this year she got a promotion. She’s now head chef. Center officials helped Dashiell with an FHA mortgage loan on a new, three-bedroom home. She also received financial assistance that paid her down payment and closing costs.
“My kids love the home and love to be able to tell each other, ‘Go to your room,’ because they shared a room. I love my own bathroom and I’m like, ‘Go to your bathroom, go to your room,” she said.
Harvest Center officials have big plans for the future. They want to build 150 affordable housing units on three acres of their property. Pinkney says they will be a mix of affordable permanent apartments and transitional units.
“We have a wait list of over 70 families now and that’s why we feel an urgent need to build out the rest of the property over the next 12 to 18 months,” Pinkney said.
Harvest Center officials say they don’t have all of the funds that they will need. Pinkney says they hope to raise $5 million over the next three years through a capital fundraising campaign. He says they will also sell two of the three group homes that they own elsewhere to fund the project. Leases on two others won’t be renewed to free up additional money.
“Our goal is, if we do our job right, is that we build something that can be replicated. So this won’t be the only community of its type in our city,” Pinkney said. “People are thinking of ways to solve this crisis, tiny houses and things like that. Ours is to build an entire community that has in it the resources that families need to live well and affordably."
Pinkney says they are seeking grants for the project and he hopes to attract private partners and churches to help with their affordable housing efforts. He says throughout the city people are finally not just talking about the affordable housing crisis but like Harvest Center, doing something about it.
WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte's affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don't miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.